Hi, I’m a tablet – I'll be your waiter tonight

06/24/2014 5:44 PM

06/24/2014 5:46 PM

An idea came to Ronald Shaich, chief executive of Panera Bread, as he was driving his children to school: What if everyone could order lunch the way he did?

The Shaich household’s morning routine included a call to the manager of the nearest Panera to order lunch.

The family stopped on the way to school to pick up the lunches. “It suddenly occurred to me that this was a wonderful system for the CEO, but what about the other 8 million people who order from Panera?” Shaich said.

“Everyone else got in line to get to the register, then got in another line where they had to play a game called go find your food,” he said. “For drinks, they had to go to another line, and if they wanted any kind of espresso drink, we sent them to a fourth line.”

So, the corporate chieftain who had once declared that “the food business is not a technology business” has spent $42 million to update Panera.

Restaurants have been late to the tech party, and many are scrambling to incorporate tablets, apps, computerized kitchen equipment and data analysis. Applebee’s is trying out online ordering and tablet payment systems, and in Asia, McDonald’s has been testing the Happy Table, an interactive table that “plays” with children using mobile devices.

Chili’s Grill & Bar has added computerized ovens that use conveyor belts, infrared technology and hot air to prepare food in each of its 1,200 restaurants. Table-side tablets allow customers to reorder desserts and alcoholic drinks, as well as pay their bills without the help of a waiter. New technology has helped Chili’s address one of its customers’ biggest complaints – slow service – and add higher-margin items to its menu.

“These things have helped our customers expedite and control their experience more, which in turn is good for our business,” said Wyman Roberts, chief executive of Brinker International, which operates Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy.

Chili’s has also teamed up with Ziosk, a company that offers a tabletop tablet with a menu, ordering options, games and a payment system.

The orders at Panera roll in from kiosks in the front of the store where customers peruse a broader menu than can be displayed on boards above cash registers.

Customers also can order directly from their tables, using their mobile phones. Those meals can be delivered to the table, eliminating the lines that concerned Shaich.

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